Families fortify teens

By Cathy Campbell

Loving and supportive families have a major impact on the health of teenagers, according to a B.C. research organization. Dr. Roger Tonkin, executive director of The McCreary Centre Society, a non-profit, non-governmental group based in Burnaby, says research shows that "what families and schools do makes a difference."

In 1999, The McCreary Centre Society released a wideranging survey of 26,000 students, called Healthy Connections. It shows that youth are less likely to take risks when they feel that parents and teachers care about them and treat them fairly.

This is the second major youth health survey and the largest ever done in B.C.; McCreary's first adolescent health survey was conducted in 1992.

"Generally speaking, Canadian youth are in pretty good shape," says Dr. Tonkin.

According to the survey:

Survey: Youth 'in good shape'

Dr. Tonkin says that Canada's national agenda is focusing on children under the age of five, but survey results show that strong family, school and community connections are just as important for youth.

Strong families give teenagers the resilience to pull back from difficult situations, he says. "We have 45 per cent of teenagers who try cigarettes, but 15 per cent who are regular smokers," he says. "What did that other large group of kids decide to do that made them just experimenters?"

'It's a little bit scary because kids are starting to use marijuana at a younger age and they're using it more often.' Dr. Roger Tonkin, executive director, The McCreary Centre Society However, not all of the news about adolescent health is good. "The real story is the increase in marijuana use," Dr. Tonkin says.

According to the 1999 health survey, which was administered to students in grades 7 to 12 in 1998, 40 per cent of teens have used marijuana, up from 25 per cent in 1992. And 13 per cent of respondents had used marijuana 40 or more times, compared with six per cent in 1992. Among 13-year olds, 20 per cent of those surveyed in 1998 had used marijuana, compared to 10 per cent in the 1992 survey.

Among 17-year-olds, 58 per cent had used marijuana in 1998, compared to 39 per cent in 1992. "These are really substantial increases," Dr. Tonkin says.

Dr. Tonkin says that increases may be attributed to a number of factors, including the recent national discussions around the medical use of marijuana, the lenience with which Olympic athletes caught using the substance have been treated, and the general belief that marijuana is a safer recreational drug than alcohol.

"It's a little bit scary because kids are starting to use marijuana at a younger age and they are using it more often," Dr, Tonkin says. At the same time, "the potentcy of modern marijuana is greater than in the late `60s and early `70s" when many of these teens' parents would have tried the substance. "We're asking the question: Is this acceptable nationally?," says Dr. Tonkin. Researchers don't know the connection between involvement with the marijuana culture and school delinquency and violence. "We certainly cannot hide our heads in the sand and say that marijuana is just a friendly little backyard drug," he says.

Dr. Tonkin says the public's response to marijuana use is "worrisome." "Young people do things in response to prevailing public attitudes," he says. For example, the fact that sexual activity among teens has decreased reflects a change in society's attitude, Dr. Tonkin says.

The report's findings have been disseminated to youth health forums across British Columbia. The forums are evaluating the survey's findings and making recommendations. "That process is going on right now. That report has yet to be written," he says. By passing the results back to youth, the survey is helping to change the social climate.

Reproduced from: Families & Health, September 2000, Volume 13.